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  • Why Did We Stop Walking and How Do We Start Again?

    by Erin Chantry

    s you may know, the CNU20 conference was organized around tracks, which allowed you to focus on your particular interest and how it relates to New Urbanism. I spent most of my time on the "Mobility and Walkable City" track since that is where my concentration lies. There is no doubt that the best breakout session of this track was "Why Did We Stop Walking & How Do We Start Again? The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City" presented by Eric Dumbaugh, Richard Hall, and Peter Norton.

    I came into this session with a heightened awareness of this topic after concentrating on Tom Vanderbilt's series, The Crisis in American Walking, in Slate magazine last month. I wasn't expecting to learn much more. I mean, what was there to learn? We started building our streets around the car because more people started driving, right? I couldn't have been more wrong. As it turns out, there was a blatant social, economic, and political shift that taught us to change the way we used our streets. This was not a natural change in priorities, but a direct result of media propaganda.

    Now, we always hear that we can't blame our problems on our past. Our choices are ours alone. If we choose to get into our automobile and drive to the grocery store instead of walk this afternoon, it's our own responsibility. Yes, there is truth in that. But just as we might discover in a personal therapy session that there are reasons we make the choices we do in our every day lives, this session enlightened me about why Americans behave the way they do.

    I encourage you all to read Fighting Traffic by Peter Norton to get all the gory details, but for me the brainwashing media campaign that two generations before me suffered, culminated in the TV show Merrily We Roll Along, narrated by Groucho Marx, as part of the weekly series, DuPont Series of the Week, in 1961. While the campaign against the pedestrian started 40 years prior, it was this show that coined the phrase "American's love affair with the automobile." In it, Groucho Marx narrated that we love our cars and would do anything for them. Essentially, we can't help any destruction or negative impacts they leave in their wake because we love them too much. The analogy was made between cars and women, i.e., "we can't live with them, we can't live without them." Man was the driver, the car was the woman. Americans were helplessly in love.

    And what a surprise! Pierre DuPont had a controlling stock in GM (General Motors) from 1914 to 1957 (until he was forced to sell to keep from monopolizing the market as part of the Clayton Antitrust Act), was the GM board chairman for a significant amount of time, and was appointed president of GM in 1920. Americans didn't decide they had a love affair with the automobile, the DuPont family and Groucho Marx did, and we have believed it ever since.

    Of course the media campaign by the car industry started way before in the early '20s. Peter Norton showed us this picture that was taken in Detroit, "The Motor City," in 1917:


    Woodward Avenue at Monroe Avenue, Detroit, 1917 (Source: Detroit News)

    In one of the busiest intersections of this big city, all users are sharing the street. Pedestrians and streetcars navigate around each other carefully. This was normal and nothing was thought of it. The street belonged to people and it was completely safe to let your children play in the street. Shift to 1923, when the number of automobile fatalities increased to 15,500 from 500 in 1907, most of them children 4-8 years old. People were in an uproar about cars, drivers, and the automobile industry. Sensing a threat to its growing business, the industry went into a high gear (no pun intended) "educational," or I might say, brainwashing, media campaign. "Jaywalking," which wasn't even a word in the American dictionary, was invented and then associated with a ridicule of anyone who did this. Clowns were hired to dress up like buffoons, or "jaywalkers," and then ridiculed in public on the streets. The auto industry realized the power of social norms and used them. In Cincinnati, when the local government tried to cap car speed off at 25 mph on any streets, this was the media response:


    Advertisement by Citizen's Committee, 1923. (Source: Cincinnati Post)

    The ordinance failed.

    I think it's important to mention here that while Americans did need convincing to give their streets up to the automobile, they were simultaneously driving more themselves. As the car became more financially accessible and the streetcar was put out of business (by the automobile), it was perhaps easier to understand the messages that the industry was feeding them. After all, the growing number of drivers didn't want to be blamed for the death of children. It was much easier to blame their parents for letting them play in the street. It is true that the car was empowering and expressive: it could take you wherever you wanted to go, when you wanted to go, and however you wanted to go. Pierre DuPont and Groucho Marx might have had an audience waiting on them, but there is no doubt that without the media campaign they might have not gone so willingly or blindly into the destruction that the automobile caused.

    The media shift to loving the automobile is still very much alive today. Raquel Nelson is a woman who was charged with the death of her own son when he was struck by a drunk driver crossing a busy arterial in Marietta, Georgia. You can read more about it here. This was not the first time this has happened. Peter Norton made the case that streets now belong to the car, and anyone that gets in the way of the car is at fault. His point was made clear when he presented data collected by transportation departments in monitoring safety. The data list the reasons for pedestrian deaths in a manner that inherently blames the pedestrian, i.e.: "death due to disability." As if this person could control the fact that they were disabled. While many people think that this is absurd, the shift back to streets belonging to people has simply not happened. The AASHTO guide clearly equates higher car speed with safety. Higher speed = street design for the automobile = life threatening conditions for anyone else trying to use the street.


    The shift from blaming the driver to blaming the pedestrian: Baltimore's memorial to child accident victims during its 1922 dedication by the mayor (Source: National Safety News) and the media coverage of Raquel Nelson in 2012 (Source: Huffington Post)

    Holy cow, knowing this made me so sad. It would be one thing if the destruction we had caused to our built environment was a natural progression of ignorant behavior, but it was due in large part to the manipulations of the corporate media. Heartbreaking. It makes me feel helpless, because it shows how easily our human nature is swayed. GM held our hands and led us into what could be argued as one of the most destructive relationships of the 20th century: man and car. Who knows what long-term destruction will be caused by the manipulation of the media today.

    But then Eric Dumbaugh voiced a very opportunistic thought: this media campaign worked once, it can work again. We were so easily influenced to believe that the death of our children was worth our "love affair" with the car. This is evidence that convincing people of anything is possible. Of course behind the media campaign of the first half of the 20th century was a multi-million dollar industry. Just like the tobacco industry that followed in its footsteps, its influence was motivated by profit, not the betterment of mankind. So this is our challenge: who will take the lead in this extremely expensive media campaign when the government has just pumped $27 billion dollars into GM?

    Eric Dumbaugh also made the point that we need to know our past to understand our future. All built environment professionals need to read Fighting Traffic to fully understand how to move forward in reclaiming our streets. Thanks to Peter Norton for his extremely enlightening research into why we are the way we are today. So much has been explained, the enlightening result will help us move forward to building streets where our children can play again.


    Erin Chantry is an Urban Designer in the Urban Design and Community Planning Service Team with Tindale-Oliver and Associates. She is also the author of "At the Helm of the Public Realm." With a BA in Architecture, MA in Urban Design and an MSc in Urban Planning, Erin has served on a variety of projects for both public sector and private sector clients, with a primary focus on architecture, urban design, land use planning, design research, and sustainability. She has expert knowledge in New Urbanism, LEED for Neighborhood Development, and how sustainable city planning and urban design can be used as a catalyst for redevelopment.
    Comments 5 Comments
    1. fringe's avatar
      fringe -
      Our city council, to its credit, decided to make a walking track around a park area of several acres. I urged them to have it engineered, at least by a landscape architect, and graded, to no avail. They just ordered a lot of gravel and spread it in a linear fashion. Have not seen it lately but am told it looks pretty rough after less than a year.
    1. DetroitPlanner's avatar
      DetroitPlanner -
      Getting rid of streetcars did not improve that intersection in the first picture. That intersection remained a jumbled mess until a few years ago when a consortium worked to free Campus Martius from ALL vehicular traffic. The result can be seen here. As you can see, the area is now focused mainly on pedestrians. It is not a true round about as signals are needed to allow pedestrians to traverese Campus Martius. Today's Motor City has miles of riverfront walkways that are connected to other pathways. In addition, many of its wide avenues now sport bike lanes. In essense one of the cities that is constantly being berated as the cause of all of the problems is coming up with solutions to provide more pedestrain and biking activities. One example is found in the Dequindre Cut. The Cut was made to provide frieght access to the river in downtown. In post-industrial Detroit, this is not needed so it has become a bike path that connects the riverfronts and Lafayette Park neighborhoods with the City's major marketplace, Eastern market. There are plans to extend this up into the area where the Detroit Institute of the Arts and Wayne State University exists. The Dequindre Cut also reseves right of way should a rail line ever get funded to get passengers to the General Motors headquarters. The circle is not quite complete, but its getting there. Its also getting people walking again.
    1. Maister's avatar
      Maister -
      I won't dispute that the automobile industry engaged in a propaganda campaign early on and attempted to influence public policy for its own self-serving interests. But ultimately the reason we stopped walking is because automobiles greatly increase personal productivity and convenience. Being able to to do more in less time was a major goal of the Industrial Revolution, and western civilization has demonstrated time and again its willingness to alter living environments and lives in order to achieve this larger aim. To ask folks at this point to give up their cars and bring about a decrease in personal productivity and convenience, will require convincing them that they'll acquire something tangibly greater in exchange for doing so.
    1. sancheq's avatar
      sancheq -
      I live in northwest Wisconsin in the Chequamegon National Forest, so walking here is a piece of cake. My dog and I set forth on the dirt road where I reside a couple of times a day upon a 1 1/2 mile trek. We are only limited during the two extreme weather times each year: the arctic cold when it dips (sometimes plunges) below zero; and the height of the summer heat and humidity when biting insects are a bane to activity.

      Two nearby urban examples of good planning come to mind. In Duluth, Minnesota, where I sometimes go for shopping or medical treatment, they have connected the entire downtown with a Skywalk. One can roam for many miles in heated comfort from hospitals and clinics to stores and restaurants. It is an investment in infrastructure that I've been pleased to watch grow for 30 years.

      On a much smaller scale, nearby to my home, the little town of Hayward, Wisconsin has created walking paths and dedicated bicycle routes that successfully foster foot and bicycle traffic. When the Carnegie Library moved from its downtown site near the elementary and middle schools to a place on the edge of town, the city built a bicycle path to it along a city street that is clearly demarked and separated by very effective rumble strips to keep cars at bay. I always see children en route to the library after school is out for the day.

      These are the kind of thoughtful planning ventures that will bear fruit for decades to come.
    1. B'lieve's avatar
      B'lieve -
      This might be a little off topic, but what bothered me most in this article was the case of Raquel Nelson. Are you (the police, the court, etc) serious?!?!?!?! If a drunk driver strikes and kills a child in the road, the driver, who is already committing a crime, is at least partly at fault. At minimum, if the kid ran out in the road right in front of the car with nowhere near enough time or stopping distance for even a slow and sober driver to avoid hitting him, the child's death is a tragic accident and the only crime would be the drunk driving (horrible as that sounds). If the child was far enough ahead when he went out in the road that a sober driver obeying the speed limit could have avoided him, then the driver is guilty of negligent homicide. The only possible scenario in which the child's mother could or should be held criminally responsible of anything is if she actively sent or threw him out into the road.

      Back on topic, the whole relationship between special interests and public attitudes/culture in the growth of sprawl and automobile dominance was a tango requiring two partners, start-to-finish. The propaganda from the auto industry and its allies(oil, steel, etc.), government zoning and housing policies, financial/mortgage redlining, and ivory-tower progressive (and conservative) academics telling us that moving to nice class-and-race-sorted suburban towns (where we would all be decent, respectable and obedient good little citizens) would be good for us was real, and huge, and effective--thought it was not some big organized conspiracy, just people and organizations seperately pursuing their own hard-nosed financial interests and starry-eyed utopian visions. But all of that would never have hit struck such a powerful, lasting and successful chord with the American public if our industrial cities had not had such problems with crime, pollution, traffic, corruption, badly-designed-and-implemented regulation, and race/ethnic/class tensions; while our own culture was and is suffused with slightly-exaggerated ideas of rural virtue (listen to all the country songs today praising the singers' hometown roots and country ways, and trashing all things and people urban) and millions of urbanites treasured selectively rosy memories of their own, their parents' or their grandparents' childhood farm or village. Not to mention the benefits of going where you choose (infrastructure permitting) on your own schedule, and the benefits to businesses of having two equally good options to move their goods (fast truck or fast train) instead of only one (the train, with the horse being no real competition.)
      On the flip side, even w/o the big push from special interests, millions of people still would have moved to the suburbs, and millions of Americans would have eagerly taken advantage of the freedom cars can bring. But that movement would have been slower and steadier, many more of those suburbs would have been built more compactly like traditional towns or streetcar suburbs, and more people would have stayed put in the cities to tackle their problems instead of taking the easier, more "respectable" (and in some unfortunate cases, the only viable) option and running away.
      For the record, I'm rural born and raised, and have also lived in, spent time in, and been/am close to people from, urban & suburban places; I happen to love both city and country, and harbor no illusions about either.